Friday, December 17, 2010

Another Move

I am now writing from my third apartment since I moved to Saigon in June of 2009. While Daphne and I loved our old place, the landlord, who had been studying abroad in England, was returning to live in it once more. After an exhausting and often frustrating search we found a new home not to far from the old one. In fact, it's in the same building but in a different block. The rent is $600 [$50 more than what we were paying for the old place] for the same size space but different layout. Things we like about the place: bigger couch, bigger TV, wooden floors, bigger kitchen, bigger bed, better quality AC, bigger shower. The only thing we find lacking is that the layout is shaped to include a hallway, making the living room a bit smaller and the extra bedroom smaller. Also, there is the lack of storage space. Thanks to the successful delivery of Daphne's seven boxes, our storage demands are much higher than the average expat teacher couple. Pictures below:


[We like the couch, despite the animal print motif]

[The larger bed, however, makes some of our bedding obsolete]

[la cuisine]

[la disastre]

In other news, if you want to see what it looks like when the Vietnamese win a football[soccer] game, it looks something like this:

[Vendors capitalize on the event by selling cheap flags on the street]

[The city becomes a party on wheels]

[I don't even know]

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vacation Time!

The highlight of work like mine and Daphne's is the opportunity to leave the city fairly regularly. Living in HCM, regular trips away help maintain sanity in such a crazy place. Those that read my last blog entry will understand when I say that this trip couldn't have come too soon.

Friday - Arrival
Yvonne had once again opened her home to us in Villa Marina for our stay. There's no favour one can do you like a bed when you're in a place like Singapore, where prices are $100 a night even in the backpackers area. The theme for our trip was food. Daphne missed Singaporean food so much and listed all the foods she was dying to eat when we got there. Unfortunately, it would take a lot more than the six days we were in town to cover her dream menu. The Friday we arrived, the first thing we did after lunch was banking. I followed Daphne to four different banks where she cleared up one issue after another. This is part of a regular ritual for her every time she comes back to Singapore. One thing she had to do was opt-out of a new program her credit card was in that sent a code to your phone that you needed when making online transactions. That's great, except she doesn't live in Singapore and now couldn't do things like buy plane tickets while in Vietnam. "You mean you don't have a global phone number?" The bank clerks had difficulty wrapping their head around that one. What kind of Singaporean wouldn't have a global phone, right?
We had dinner with Daphne's parents and youngest sister, Georgina, who I was meeting for the first time. Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet Daphne's other sister, Michelle, on this trip as she and her baby son were contagious with Hand, mouth & foot disease. Dinner was good but there was so much! We ate at a local hawkers' centre/market and Daphne's mom kept getting up to get more and more food for us. When it comes to family feasts, Chinese can be just as bad as Russians.
After dinner, Daphne and I said goodbye to the folks and went downtown to meet some of Daphne's long time friends at #5 Emerald Hill, which is in an area of preserved colonial houses turned restaurants. The place was famous for its chicken wings but we were too stuffed to pursue so we stuck to the drinks. "Buy one get one martinis, only $16!" In Singapore, the food is quite cheap, but the drinking is very very expensive.

Saturday - A Wedding
The next day we went to the Singapore National Museum to see the Pompeii exhibit and brush up on some Singapore history. From there we went to a Buddhist temple where Daphne showed me how to get my fortune read. It was like a game, you get a wooden jar with a bunch of sticks, you ask a question in your head and shake the jar until one and only one stick comes out with some characters on it. You then roll two stones with one rounded side and one flat, if they come out the same you have to shake the jar again for a new stick, if they come up different then you take your stick to a counter and get your paper fortune. Daphne and I were both happy with our results.

That evening, we were running late for a wedding. Daphne's friend, Annie had just married and run off with a Spanish Swiss, Roberto, to Switzerland. This was actually the dinner, as the wedding tea ceremony was just for family. We arrived at the restaurant just in time to pass the bride and groom who were getting ready to march. As we get to the dining area everyone is standing and looking in our direction. Thinking that we were the bride and groom, the audience barely stops itself from applauding. One person in the back doesn't quite stop fast enough and releases a lone clap. Light laughter follows, cheeks flush.
After a really good four course meal at Da Paolo featuring the best Tiramisu I have ever had, we went with the newly married couple and friends down to the bay front, One Fullerton, and a club called The Butter Factory. The club has a $28 cover, which we avoided by buying four bottles of spirits, and consisted of two rooms, one hiphop, one electro, some very good DJing, good decoration, great sound system and a panoramic view of the coast with the Merlion and The Marina Sands in sight. As expensive as this place was, it didn't stop some patrons from buying one meter tall bottles of Belvedere Vodka. Our initial plan of staying until 2am already didn't offer us much chance for sleep. The fact that we didn't get home until 4am didn't help matters.

[Us With The Happy Couple]

Sunday - A Birthday
The next morning we had to be up to go to an 8am three hour yoga workshop with Yvonne. When I woke up, I kidded myself into believing that I was only tired and could make it. Halfway there in the taxi I had my hand over my mouth and was tapping the taxi driver's shoulder. The taxi driver was very nice to me and gave me his water, his way of showing gratitude that I made it out without messing on his cab. I spent the entirety of the yoga workshop sleeping on a couch outside the room. Daphne and Yvonne said it was a good class, I'll have to take their word.
We headed to a boat dock next where Yvonne had rented an 80 ft. long three story boat house for a delayed birthday party. The boat was beautiful and aside from a brief shower the weather was good. Yvonne's helper, Samita, cooked an amazing Sri Lankan feast. Fresh air, (fairly) clean water, good food, good day. We after partied at Daphne's friend Ruqxana, whose 1970's Beatle is probably the oldest running car in Singapore. Unfortunately, Ruk's nine cats, who although were very sweet and tame, gave Daphne a massive allergy attack leading us back to Yvonne's in search of antihistamines.

[We Had A Wii, But Nobody Touched It Because We Had A Boat, Too]

[People Are Going To Live There Someday]

Monday - Walking
Monday we spent all day on our feet. We met Andria and her baby [commercially viable cuteness] for lunch and then went to a couple Buddhist temples with Daphne's parents and 4 yr. old niece, Zenna. Zenna didn't remember me and was shy at first, but she warmed up and I even practiced my Chinese with her. We went to Chinatown where I bought a bunch of tea and met up with Daphne's friend, Zi, at a tea house. While shopping for tea, the clerks at one of the stalls were staring at a counterfeit $100 bill a customer had just used on them. It was a very good fake, even had the ghost Franklin, but it didn't hold up to scrutiny next to a real one. Unfortunately, my lecture in identifying real from fakes did not award me with a discount for my services. Anyhow, after we had tea we went on a quest for fried radish cake. We had been trying to get it all week but every stall we had gone to was out. This time, we went to three different hawkers' centers around the island before finding a stall that was serving.

[Apple Juice]

Tuesday - Climbing
On our last day we went to Little India's Mustafah market, a massive crowded places that sold everything. I bought some Darjeeling tea and Daphne got some yoga gear. In total, I had bought 1.5 kg of tea on this trip. Am I a nerd or what? At night I went climbing with Yvonne and her kids, Rohan, 7, and Uma, 9, while Daphne hung out with her friend Jeanne. These kids are every mother's dream. Very smart, outgoing, bilingual and well mannered. They took to climbing instantly and when we were on the boat, Rohan was the first person to do a dive from the top of the boat into the water. These kids aren't video game deprived either[they each have their own DS and a Wii] but they enjoy doing other things as well. Yvonne should write a book.

[Rohan Showing Us How It's Done]

The trip was a much needed change of pace and literally a breath of fresh air. Daphne even said that it was the best time she had in Singapore in a long time and wished we could have stayed longer, but its back to grind and honk of Saigon for us.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November Rains

This last gap between blogs is not due to a lack of having anything to write, but rather waiting for a few 'stories' to play out so that I wouldn't be blogging half way into them. Daphne and I had been visited by a string of bad luck and it would have been poor form to blog about these things without including resolution.

Motorbike Diaries
It began a couple of weeks ago when Daphne got into her second accident. It happened on her way back home from a yoga class just outside our apartment building. A woman crossing the street stopped in the middle of the road to stare at Daphne and her big bag that she uses for all her yoga gear. This caused Daphne to swerve, her yoga bag just catching the woman and causing an imbalance and fall. She didn't look so bad when she got home. It didn't seem as serious as last time, just some scratches on her leg and a swollen hand. But the hand got so swollen [it didn't help that Daphne still went to teach yoga] that we had an x-ray done the next day. Her left pinky was broken just above the knuckle. The doctor put a splint on it and said to get another x-ray done in two weeks to see if it was healing. Meanwhile, Daphne goes on and keeps teaching and driving, despite the doctor recommending against it. But what's a yoga teacher gonna do? Not work for two weeks to a month? Freelancers don't get medical leave.

Exactly two weeks later, driving home from work, Daphne is rear ended by a young guy with track marks on his arm. I get a call from her to meet her at the nearby local hospital. She doesn't call me from her phone though, she forgot that at home that day. I arrived at the dingy hospital in just five minutes. Mosquitoes were flying around the emergency ward and the water cooler in the waiting room had only three reusable plastic cups. Daphne comes out in better condition than I feared. A scrape on her shoulder was the only visible wound but then she showed me the crack in her helmet where she landed on from the fall. Fortunately, she was concussion-free, though she did sport a nasty headache for a couple of days. This time she was quite shaken up and I played chauffeur for the next couple days. We went to get the x-ray done but the bone hadn't healed yet so the doctor said it'll be another month with the splint for her.

I drove Daphne from her class in District 2 to District 7 by testing out a new route that was supposed to be more direct and faster. It was also very dusty, crowded with trucks and crater infested. The brilliance of this route however, was the massive arching bridge, Cau Phu My, that goes from one district to the other. It offered an incredible view of the city at sunset that almost made the grime on our face worth it. On the other side of the bridge we needed to turn left, but what we didn't realize was that the left turn only went into a car lane, an engineering oversight that was being taken advantage of by the motorcops at the next light. We got pulled over and the cops started asking for things in Vietnamese, a language I don't know. I began to speak really fast in English, a language they don't know, while pointing back the way I came. One of the officer pointed to a registration card and license, a document I don't have, and I pretended to not understand and just pointed back and kept on talking. They tried ignoring me for a while and went about doing paperwork, but as that didn't shut me up nor get me to produce what they wanted they finally just waved me away.

Seven Boxes and the Black Friday
Meanwhile, a boat arrives into Saigon bearing seven boxes addressed to a Ms. Chua. What's left of Daphne's possessions from her past life have arrived. Now there was just the not so simple matter of getting it cleared through customs. What should have taken only two days ended up taking two weeks. The problem initially arose because of a change in law. You used to need to fill out a customs declaration card upon arrival to Vietnam, but recently the law has changed so that now you only need to do one if you're bringing more than $7,000. While it's nice to have one less document to fill out in life, it would be even nicer if Customs had adjusted their shipping rules to accommodate the new law. As it was, they still required that you give them your declaration card to get your shipment. Since our arrival from the States was after the new law was instated, we had no such card. You would think that enlightening them with a simple law check would have cleared things up quickly, but no such luck.

Finally, the shippers told us that the boxes would be cleared last Friday morning, so I waited at home for them while Daphne went to teach. When they didn't show up I telephoned the shippers to find out that they've hit another snag with customs who now won't release the boxes until they meet Daphne. I hop on my bike to go meet her at work, but as I'm driving up the ramp my hand gently brushes against a corner of sideview mirror, causing the tip of my finger to slice open and blood to rush. I run up stairs quickly with my finger in my mouth to keep from dripping blood everywhere. Thankfully I manage to stop the bleeding. Wrapping my finger up in toilet paper and medical tape I went back downstairs holding my finger up to the sky to keep it elevated. I drove that way, finger pointing up, all the way to the studio to get Daphne. From there we drove our bikes to the shipping office, left Daphne's bike there, and followed one of the shippers on a 40 minute dusty ride to the port. We had a housing appointment at 1pm but we moved it to 2:3o and Daphne had to cancel her afternoon private class all because the customs officer wanted to see her. But when we got there they were out to lunch. So we waited a half hour, met with the officer who then said we had to go to the warehouse where the boxes were. So we went, waited for the warehouse to open, the boxes were brought to us, opened, searched, a 'token' fee was paid and off we went. We were told that the boxes would finally be released that night. We could only hope.

We got on the bike and just as we left the port a massive storm fell upon us. This time of year, the rainy season should have already been over, so the events that follow I blame entirely on global warming. As we made our way back we found ourselves on Cau Phu My bridge again, but the lower part was flooded. The engine flooded and the bike stopped. We trenched through the water, Daphne pushing the bike from behind while I tried to start it. It would start, she would hop on, and then it would die. About ten times. After some ten minutes of this I finally managed to get it started and kept on long enough to get back on track. Meanwhile, my makeshift bandage is nothing but tape now and stinging. We make it to our housing appointment thirty minutes late and absolutely drenched. We look at the place for about one minute, shake our heads and head back down to the parking to make our way home. Somehow, the parking tag disappeared in the short span of time we were there. The rule for losing your tag is that the garage keeps your bike for 24-hours. Somehow this 'proves' that the bike is yours and that you're not stealing. Because the parking tag is considered more legitimate than the registration card in my wallet for my bike. This is the my last straw, and I end up in a massive shouting match with the security guards. As neither party was backing down, I had to give in[I was surrounded by six guards] and fill out the paper work. We tried walking around the garage checking every corner but could not find the tag. It was gone and I was bikeless. We took a taxi to get Daphne's bike at the shipping office and, feeling like karma rejects, made our way in the rain back home for a much much needed hot shower. The day did end on a good note, however, when at 9pm those seven boxes that caused us so much grief arrived at our door, like Santa coming down the chimney at a wake.

And Then
The next day I woke up in an ill mood having to take a xe om to work[motorbike taxi]. But it was Teacher's Day and my first class of the day gave me roses. Yes, I'm a guy who feels better when he's given flowers, sue me. Other gifts included a couple of cards, $5 and a tie with pink polka dots. When I went to get my bike I picked up some beers and gave it to the parking attendants as an apology for flipping out on them. It's amazing what some flowers can do to your mood.

Now, we have seven more boxes of stuff to move mid-December. We did find a place and have just put down the deposit. While we love where we live now, the owner is returning from his time abroad and wants to live here again. Fortunately, we've found another great place in the same building so moving won't be too difficult. But before that, I think we are in desperate need of a vacation...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Eating My Best Friend

It will come to no surprise to my readers, or anyone that knows me well, that there is very little that I won't eat. If you're new here[welcome, I'm not sure how you got here but good for you and I hope you leave entertained] then allow me to illustrate this with a short list of food that I've tried:

Kangaroo[Highly Recommended]
Shark Fin Soup[Tastes good, but not good enough to justify the cruelty of the industry. Try a Chinese crab soup instead, it's very similar.]
Duck Fetus[Flavour is OK, but its appearance is just wrong. Gave me food poisoning.]
Fried Bamboo Worm[Tastes like Cheetos, but healthier]
Crocodile[Like chicken but with more awesome]

The delicacies mentioned above are all ones that I consider novel. Occasionally I will mention having tried a certain food to someone that I don't think of as being taboo and they give me eyebrows about it - things like rabbit, caviar or fois gras. But I suppose its all subjective.

As a child, not a birthday passed that I didn't ask my parents for a dog. I loved dogs, cats too for that matter, and dogs loved me back. "He/She really likes you!" I heard this a lot from owners of difficult pooches when they saw how quickly their leashed companions took to me. My best friend in childhood from across the street had two huskies that I played with often, and my roommates in University had a dog that I lived with for two years. So the addition of Dog to the list above may come as a shock even to those that know my eating habits well.

How does a dog lover like me drag himself to a dog meat restaurant? Curiosity[this time it killed the dog...sorry, bad joke]. Curiosity and a belief that putting animals into categories of 'pet' and 'food' are completely culturally driven and not objective rules. If the Vietnamese can eat dogs, so can I. I always make an effort to cross cultural boundaries to strive for a higher, unifying understanding of human nature. That's what traveling is all about, letting go of your inhibitions and taboos.

Now that I got the rationalizations out of the way, let's move on to it. Daphne held no interest in trying dog[she often tells me that I'm more Chinese than she is], so I waited for her to leave town this weekend before my culinary escapade. I drove down to an alley not too far from the backpacking district known for its many dog meat quans and stopped at the first place that said, cay truong. I wasn't sure at first if it was correct. I knew that cay was a word that meant dog, but my last attempt to get dog based on that word didn't work out. It happened like this, I walked into a place for dog and when they didn't understand what I wanted I pointed at a dog that all too conveniently walked up to me at just that moment. Cay also means tree, it was part of their restaurant's name. Really need to pay attention to those accents.

This time though, I was in the right place. They handed me a menu with only two pages, one with the many ways they can prepare the dog meat, all in Vietnamese, and the other half had a list of rice wines and other liquors. I guess alcohol and eating dog go hand in hand? It seemed that way when I ordered iced tea and the server practically scoffed. As for the dog, I ordered thit nuong, which meant barbecued. It was also the only cooking style I recognized on the menu.

The portion they brought me was rather big for one person. I have to say that it looked quite good as far as meats go. It was sprinkled with sesame and served with veggies, rice cracker and pepper/salt for dipping. Now for the tasting. I must confess, despite my rational I was feeling apprehension towards what I was about to do, but as far as I was concerned I was beyond the point of no return. The taste and texture was like a cross between beef and venison, with a hint of what was indisputably dog. I didn't realize that I knew what dog tasted like and it disturbed me to recognize that taste in my mouth. As the serving boys snickered nearby, I was determined not to be beat and finished the whole plate. Afterward, despite my convictions that there was nothing wrong with eating dog, I couldn't help but feel a wave of guilt nausea. A tingling in the stomach, a flush of the face and a few awkward burps. I spent the next couple of hours feeling like a different person. I wondered, will dogs be able to smell my crime and avoid me from now on? That would be tragic.

So, will I ever eat it again? Only if a friend wants to try it, I think it will feel less strange the second time around, but it's not something I'm going to crave. Do I recommend it? If you're like me and you need to try everything, then it doesn't matter whether I recommend it or not, but if you're on the fence and not sure that you can do it then you probably can't.

As for myself, I think I'm basically out of strange foods to eat. I decided to clump cat into the dog category and leave it alone. And as for live monkey brain, no way. Am I missing something? Is there an odd delicacy that I still haven't tried?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Home Again

Daphne says that I have to blog about going back home before I can blog about eating a dog, so this is that. It will be short because it has already been three weeks since that happened and I'm more interested right now in writing about how I ate a dog.

First Stop
We flew into D.C. first but drove the next day to Duck, North Carolina on the outer banks. My brother's in-laws were visiting from Russia and he rented a beach house for a week. We stayed there for four days which we mostly spent sleeping off our jetlag. Breaks in naps were taken to photograph sunsets, do and take yoga pictures and eat lots of meat. Daphne learned that an order of ribs in America comes at ten times the volume of ribs in Asia.

On the Road
We had to drive all the way back to D.C. before we could pick up a rental and then left immediately for Cincinnati, not arriving until midnight. My grandmother stuffed the fridge with food and complained regularly that we weren't eating enough. Things we did in Cincinnati: saw, ate with, drank with friends, grandmother and uncle's family. Had dinner with Saad, who let us take yoga pictures in his house the next day. Went to the zoo with my grandma and cousin. We wanted to go to King's Island and ride some roller coasters but it was closed.

[Yana and Babushka]

[I love coming to see this tiger]

[Amish enjoying ice cream outside of UDF at the zoo]
[Beers overlooking the Cincy skyline]

[Jungle Jim's Blew Daphne's Mind]

[Yoga at Saad's]

From Cincinnati we were Indiana bound to spend the night with an old friend of Daphne. We detoured through Kentucky and stopped into the Creation Museum. This places teaches the 'scientific' theory that the world was created six thousand years ago and that dinosaurs were created the same day as man and were even on Noah's Ark. Fossils are from the flood, and the Grand Canyon wasn't created over millions of years, because Mt. St. Helen blew up once and made a big hole so, naturally, you can assume that the rest of earth's geological feature were created thus. It was big, expensive and equal doses of funny and frightening. Later, in Indiana, had a good time with Daphne's friend, Catherine, and her husband, Tim, who are hilarious.

[Churches that take the symbolic approach of the bible are naughty]

[Veloceraptor behind Adam and Eve]

Gap Day
We had a spare day before our next destination so we went for one night to Chicago. The GPS had a feature to avoid toll roads, which made the going much longer than it needed to be. Once were there, we rushed to the University of Chicago Art Museum and tried to squeeze as much in as we could before they chased us out. We walked around the city and went to The House of Blues, but they were closed for three private parties so we walked one mile to Buddy Guy's Legends. That was also closed for a private party, but only until 10 which was in an hour, so we went across the street to have a drink at a dive bar and wait it out. Everyone else in the bar was also waiting to get into Legends, the place only had music via jukebox and there was only a men's restroom. When the private party left, we enjoyed some good music and a very tasty burger.

A Wedding
Next day, we set out on the road for Pennsylvania, where my two best friends from college, John and Kait, were going to marry each other. I turned off the feature on the GPS that blocked toll roads in order to get out of Chicago faster. This worked, except it also kept us on a toll road the whole trip to within five miles of their house costing us $30 in tolls. Meanwhile, we drove through a blinding storm that was traveling along with us in Ohio. Many cars couldn't take it and just pulled over the side of the road to wait it out, but our ETA was late at night so I couldn't waste time. We arrived safely. The wedding was outdoors and very beautiful. The ceremony was short, we all dressed in Pakistani clothing to please John's Muslim father, Kait did not convert, however, which would have really displeased her Christian parents. My friend, Mike, became a minister online to do the ceremony. After the reception some of us stayed to make a bonfire and camp out for the night.

[Best Wedding Party Outfits Ever]

[Congratulations Guys, You Rock]

We finished back in D.C. where we spent time with my parents and brother and co. We wanted to see the museums of the Smithsonian but there were all so big. It took us two days to see the Holocaust Museum and at The Natural History Museum we couldn't even make it through the Gemstone exhibit.

Sorry to make this blog so short, but I'm trying to catch up to the present so that I can write more, up to date blogs. Peace.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

Stuck at home, sick, on a Saturday I realize that it's been a while since I've posted anything. My initial excuse would be that there hasn't been anything worth writing about, but is that fair? Perhaps then I should take it as sign that I need to be out there doing more interesting stuff or maybe I've been here so long already that I've lost the ability to find what makes the things in my life extraordinary. I'm inclined to think it may be a bit of both.

Not able to find things of interest to outside, I began looking in. I helped Daphne out by making her a website for her yoga: And also took some new yoga pictures for her, as she has just been sponsored by a local clothing company:

I looked even further in and started taking Mandarin on Rosetta Stone. I now know more Chinese than Vietnamese. Why am I not taking Vietnamese instead? Learning languages is difficult for me so I want to use my energy to learn one that I want to know forever, rather than just one that I'll use for a year or two.

I was fortunate to have three people this past month that pulled me out and reminded me that I was living some place different and special. The first was my university mate, Zane, who has just come here to do his CELTA[for which I got a $200 referral fee] at ILA and teach English here. He described things that to me were ordinary in a way that made everything glow. For him everything shined like the sun, while I was still squinting to see the stars. As we taught him simple words and numbers, and he told us about the things that he saw on his first day and the people he talked to, I felt nostalgia for the naivety that comes with being some place new and that I too felt just a year before.

Later that same week, our friend, Bret, who had done the CELTA with us came for a brief visit. He has been living and working in Shanghai and was now on a six week paid vacation traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia. He wanted me to take him shooting around Saigon, something I hadn't done since after my first couple of months here. So on his last day I drove him to District Five, China town, and we walked about all afternoon taking photographs. ...

[Bret shows these guys the photo he took of them]

[Vietnamese grannies are cute, no?]

[Obviously, he didn't get it]

[I took this with one of Bret's lenses. After he left, I placed a long overdue order for two new lenses of my own]

[Cupping, removes toxins from your body, leaves giant hickeys]

[These kids will sell you a lion mask for a good price]

[While I go through great lengths to take mediocre shots, I hand feed great material to Bret on the ground below]

Bret was hardly gone when Daphne had a friend from Singapore visit us on their International Day weekend. Yvonne is actually Taiwanese so we can forgive her lack of patriotism for leaving The Red Dot on its biggest day of the year. Since Daphne was working most of Friday, I was left alone with her friend on tour guide duty. I took her rock climbing for her first time, as well as a few of my other favourite places.
"Just for you reference, that was a red light."
"And just for your reference, a bribe is only ten dollars."
Whenever she tried something new for the first time, it almost felt like I was trying it for the first time, too. Food tasted better, the coffee was stronger and sweeter and everything was beginning to look fresh again.

Now that my contract at ILA is coming to a close I've had to spend the last few months contemplating on what comes next. Do I stay another year or try somewhere else? My three visitors were like prophets pointing the way, they showed what glitters when I was hard at seeing. I'm thinking it's stay.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Paradise Lost and Found

The month of June marked my one year anniversary in Vietnam. Daphne's absence had left a void in my life, my schedule and my heart. Writing about personal stuff is a challenge for me and doing so in a public forum is all but impossible. So I'll be quite brief with it.

As I had mentioned at the end of the last blog, Daphne and I parted not for a lack of love but for other reasons. I won't go into what those reasons are, but let's just say that those 'other reasons' worked themselves out and exactly one month after I said goodbye to her at the airport she was back there with twice the load of luggage than when she left. I could probably write a book about everything that happened in between, but I'm afraid that all I can manage for the sake of a blog are two vague paragraphs. I hope the reader will understand and accept my censorship and read on.

Naturally, we had to give ourselves a short holiday, so we went to Phu Quoc again[this time by plane, not motorbike] to spend the week on the quiet beach, away from the world outside. We also chose it because during the time we were there, our good friend Sylven was getting married on the mainland just a short ferry ride away.

It's difficult to write about a beach holiday, anyone who's been on one will know. With all the lounging, sunning, swimming and eating it doesn't fit itself into a narrative structure very well. Because we were at the beginning of the rainy season, the weather wasn't as good as our first visit. Rainy, cloudy but also cooler in the nights and a bit less bitey in the evenings. It was the off season, so our room was only $10 and at first we were the only people at the hotel. Off season, however meant that the beaches weren't cleaned as regularly as they usually are, so what was a clean beautiful beach on our first visit was now littered. I'm told that if you were to get stranded on an uninhabited island, the beaches would be filthy there, too. Its all one ocean, after all. Worse than the general litter however, was the tar. Gooey black globs of tar lined the beach and the only way to clean it from the bottoms of our feet was to use the turpentine bottle we kept next to our bungalow. Why was there tar on the beach anyways?

Still we found ourselves having a good time despite these issues. We spent our time in hammocks, in the sea and reading a lot. I finnished Gulliver's Travels and Murakami's Norwegian Wood[on loan from a friend]. At nights we ate good seafood and played pool at Le Bistro while drink rhum lemons.

[Stop, Hammock Time]

We rented a bike and went cruising through the island, trying to find more things to do. At one point, we got into an accident when somebody who wasn't paying attention hit us from the rear. We felt a small bump behind us and then heard a crash. I stopped and looked behind to see a man falling off his bike, and some glass thing that he was carrying shattering on the ground into thousands of shards. In Vietnam, it's actually legal to drive away from an accident, so long as you go report it to a police station later[not likely to happen]. This is because Vietnamese onlookers can't help but get themselves involved and violence is not uncommon. I didn't drive away immediately and instead waited to see if he got up and was alright. When he got up and walked to his bike, he admitted wrong doing by not yelling at me and avoiding eye contact. Although I was ready to drive away from the situation, I held it together knowing I had to give both myself and him face. So I asked Daphne to get off, look at the damage on our bike and confirm that it wasn't a big deal. We then drove away without a word. Of course, it'd be nice to have seen to him and made sure that he was alright, take him to get a bandaid, etc. But without language, he would've assumed one of two things by our approach. Either we were going to ask him for money for damages, or that our polite tone meant that we were apologetic and claiming fault, to which he would've started demanding damages paid. So, under the circumstances, seeing that he was able to get up and lift his bike off the ground, I had to leave it at that.

One day, we took a trip to the far side of the island. We stopped by a pearl farm, where I played with a guard monkey, and went to small beach that had finer white sand then ours, but sadly was just as dirty. On our way back we got caught in some really bad cold rain and had to drive through it for one hour without raincoats. A hot bowl of Bun Rieu, helped warm our bones when we got back to town, and luckily we didn't get sick.

[He found my keys and tried to eat them]

Halfway through our stay, we went to Rach Gia for two nights to see our friend Sylven get married. Sylven's an American who did the CELTA with us and he was marrying a Vietnamese girl, Lan, in her family's house in Kien Giang in the Mekong Delta. Sylven really wanted to do the wedding local and do it right, but it proved to be harder than he had expected[ok, I don't know what he was expecting, but it was hard]. For the wedding, the dinner came first the night before. No pictures, sorry, we forgot our cameras. In order to get there we had to take a car from Rach Gia, where our hotel was, cross a slow ferry, drive some more, and then take a boat to the house itself[two hours in all]. The boat ride was at night, so while one guy drove Sylven had to shine a flashlight ahead to make sure we didn't run into any debris. I'm not sure how they're able to find their houses like this, but finding Lan's wasn't too hard. All we had to do was find the carnival tent with the loud electric keyboard tunes and screechy karaoke vocals emanating from it. The food was pretty good, large shrimp, crab, innards soup and other tasty things were served. Easy to come by for Lan's parents, who were shrimp and crab farmers. One problem, however, was the massive amounts of little insects that kept flying around and falling into the food. Each bite had to be closely scrutinized for unwanted guests before being invited into our mouths. Sylven made a big error with the mother-in-law that night, he didn't bring her an offering of roast pork. One of the many traditions of a Vietnamese wedding. Bringing it the next day wasn't an option either, it had to be then or never. Ironically, we had passed a lot of stands on the way there that sold roast pork[heo quay], Sylven and Lan just didn't know that he needed to bring it.

The next day, the responsibility for gathering all the necessary offerings had been allocated to some of Lan's cousins. That way Sylven could avoid making anymore mistakes. Lan had to spend the night at the house so that she can stay up all night and wash vegetables with her female family members[really] while we made the long trip back to Rach Gia, only to make it again early the next morning. This time, I had my camera.

Aside from Daphne and myself, the only others able to attend Sylven's side were his friend Thorin and his eight year old son[Thorin's not Sylven's].

The little boat we had to take was hard to balance your way onto, and it had no chairs. After that first night of squatting for thirty minutes in the boat, Sylven decided to buy some short plastic chairs for us this time around.

[Land ho]

[All offerings are in order, will Sylven be forgiven for the pig?]

Sylven is now in Lan's house. Offerings are all set. The tradition here is that the man comes to take the woman away from her home. She will now be a part of his family and no longer her own.

[The Bride waits for her cue]

So, as confusing as it was for us to understand what was going on at the wedding, we came to realize that we weren't the only ones confused. The man pictured above[some kind of uncle?] was leading the proceedings. However, in the living room were seated family members who kept interrupting him. Apparently, there was a lack of consensus for how a 'Vietnamese' wedding should be performed, each family member had his or her own opinion on what came next. And on a personal note, I begrudged the uncle with the mic for constantly standing in front of the bride and groom, making good photo-ops near impossible.

Meanwhile, while Uncle rants, family members burn incense and make offerings to their ancestors, or Buddha, or both[?].

Sylven also has to pay up. Aside from a dowry that includes giving the mother gold, he has to give her gifts during the ceremony, as well as to all her sisters[and any other family member that wants to paid off]. In addition to the wedding ring, he also has to dress Lan with other bits of jewelery: necklace, earings, etc.

The ceremony ends with a bow to the audience and a bow to the ancestors/Buddha shrine. No kiss like in the West. Then, a meal, with much fewer guests in attendance than the night before, and we were off[after waiting for a short storm to subside]. Wedding finished. Instead of wedding presents, its customary, as in Chinese weddings as well, to give red envelopes with money instead. Daphne says, that its customary for Chinese to pay for their own wedding, but then make a profit[for some] off of the envelopes in the end[in the West, the parents pay and you get pillow cases and blenders]. However, for whatever reason, it was Lan's mom who got to keep the red envelopes. Payback for no roast pork, maybe?

Sylven and Lan had to leave for Saigon the same day, while Daphne and I stayed one more night in Rach Gia before going back to Phu Quoc to enjoy our last days of holiday.

It took some time before I could post this blog, I had some computer issues that had to be resolved first. Since then, Daphne is on the way to refilling her yoga schedule, I'm back at work, with less then two months before my contract ends. And after that, we shall see...